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  • The Road to Rescue: The Untold Story of Schindler's List
  • Ruth Schwertfeger
The Road to Rescue: The Untold Story of Schindler's List, by Mietek Pemper, translated by David Dollenmayer. New York: Other Press, 2008. 250 pages. $24.95.

In a New York Times book review (December 26, 2008) of Thomas Keneally's memoir Searching for Schindler, Keneally is quoted as saying, "For both commercial reasons and reasons of passion, I didn't want this book stuck in that section against the back wall of most American bookstores labeled JUDAICA." The Road to Rescue certainly belongs in that spurned section, for at its heart is the story of the cruel disruption and ultimately loss of life suffered specifically by Jews when Nazi Germany invaded and terrorized Poland in September 1939. The original memoir—Der rettende Weg—has been fluently translated from the German into an equally sober and unadorned prose.

The Road to Rescue embodies both a personal memoir—the author and several members of his family were on Schindler's list—and the broader history of the Generalgouvernement that the Nazis imposed on Poland. In the latter case, the memoir provides significant information about how the area was governed, the mutual antagonisms among Nazi leaders who were responsible for administrating it, and the power struggles between the Generalgouvernement and Berlin. If that were all this book had to offer, it would be worth reading. [End Page 186]

Pemper begins his narrative in Kraków, a city that was once home to one of the oldest Jewish communities in Poland. Within months of the German attack on Poland, Jewish civilians were rounded up, the white armband with Jewish star was introduced, the Polish press was shut down, and Kraków became an important center for the Reich, and specifically for the administration of the Generalgouvernement. Pemper's testimony has a double edge in that his fluency in German allowed him to penetrate the network of the German occupation, initially as an interpreter for thousands of Polish refugees who had been deported in 1938 from Germany to Poland, then as a member of the ghetto Judenrat in the summer of 1941, but above all as personal stenographer to Amon Göth, who became commandant of the Kraków-Plaszów camp in February 1943. For more than six months, until the end of 1943, Pemper had access to the personnel files of all the SS men in the camp and was able to keep abreast of news from Nazi Germany by clandestinely reading German newspapers like the Völkischer Beobachter.

Pemper begins his narrative, however, well before Göth took up his job as commandant and thus before the relationship between Göth and Oskar Schindler. His story will ultimately rest on Schindler and his list, but the reader needs patience as Pemper carefully tracks the escalating hardships that were imposed on the local Jewish population. In the fall of 1940, for example, 60,000 Jews were ordered to leave Kraków to make room for German officials, the SS, and war profiteers from Germany. In March 1941, the announcement was made that the Generalgouvernement would be "judenfrei," and in November the Belzec camp was completed where 600,000 Jews were killed within eight months. Pemper never allows the reader to disassociate the famous list either from the historical context that preceded it or indeed later from the many intricacies that shaped it.

Pemper's main focus is clearly on Kraków-Plaszów and the various transformations that it underwent, initially from ghetto to forced labor camp in March 1943, then to concentration camp in January 1944. He obviously also depicts the last phase of the rescue, at the camp in Brünnlitz in the Sude-tenland. Increasingly, the thread that binds these changes and relocations is the role that Schindler played in perpetuating labor for Jews who had once worked in his enamelware factory, a satellite camp for Plaszów. By early 1944 work had become synonymous with survival, and both Pemper and Schindler had to collude silently on devious schemes to produce arms that had become "siegentscheidend"—the word "wichtig" (important) to the war effort...


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pp. 186-188
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